My mom did not support my early compulsion for movie-going to the degree that my dad did, but her support was nonetheless crucial. During a very formative era for both of us, Mom used to drop me off at the movies on Sunday afternoons while she went to the library to study for her law degree. There was a brief shining period where I got to see a lot of cool movies that no one else in my family wanted to see with me, purely because I was able to hop a ride into town with Mom. Among the early 80’s gems I saw solo were VICTOR / VICTORIA, TEMPTEST, BARBAROSA, MY FAVORITE YEAR, THE KING OF COMEDY and A CHRISTMAS STORY all because Mom & I were simpatico on our need to get the hell out of the house. We also saw some great movies together under similar circumstances, including a rerelease of LADY & THE TRAMP (we had those in the pre-home video days!), THE DARK CRYSTAL, INDIANA JONES & THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, and JFK.
Mom and I saw another Sunday afternoon classic together that turned out to be a watershed moment in my understanding of motherhood and how film expresses motherhood: Steven Spielberg‘s adaptation of Alice Walker‘s novel THE COLOR PURPLE. Whoopi Goldberg made her major studio debut as Celie Johnson, who grows from adolescence to motherhood to arbiter of her own destiny, all in the deep south in the years before and during the Great Depression. Even as a kid I was aware of this film’s detractors, most of whom took it to task for blunting the edges of Walker’s novel. What these folks failed to recognize is that a Hollywood version is a perfect gateway experience for a teenaged boy who might not have otherwise read the novel. Mom and I had seen more movies than I can easily recall, but never one that made both of us cry like THE COLOR PURPLE. This was such a new experience for both of us that we both kept impossibly still trying to keep each other from knowing that the movie had made us … weak? Meanwhile we heard the sniffling and whimpering and outright sobs of dozens around us.
There was one simple thing about Miss Celie’s odyssey, that I’d never seen in any movie, that made THE COLOR PURPLE unforgettable. We follow Celie from her early teens, abandoned into a young marriage by her own family, abused by her husband, ignored by those to whom she reaches out for help. The amazing thing is that Celie does not repeat any of her past upon her children. Growing up in the 80’s, I had friends whose parents raised them with echoes of the wholesome 1950’s or the free-spirited 60’s. I imagine the same is true today, with teens being raised by parents who grew up in the Gordon Gecko/Tony Montana Generation-X 80’s or the nothing-matters-and-what-if-it-did 90’s. In all if the kids I grew up with, and kids today, you can spot echos of their parents’ past that has manifested itself in their kids. Celie does not repeat the sins visited upon her in her past, she goes the complete opposite direction, providing the compassion and discipline that were missing from her own upbringing.
Celie Johnson rejects the “I raise you this way because it’s how I was raised” school of parental thought. She becomes the mother, sister, woman, friend who had been absent in her own life. I had never seen any movie character transcend his or her past to this degree. In doing so Celie fomented a conversation that continues to this day between my Mom & me, about how she and I were raised, and which aspects of our childhood were detrimental to our own happiness and well being. Sure this conversation between Mom & me may have come about organically some day, but thanks to the push from THE COLOR PURPLE, this reflectiveness came at a perfect time for both of us. For the record, I feel like Mom did pretty damn good, though she’d probably prefer I say “pretty damned well.”
Mom and I saw another, far more fantastic surrogate movie mother a few years later: Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in ALIENS. This was not the type on movie my mother would normally see. I saw ALIEN with my brother Ed and my dad in 1979; my first viewing of ALIENS was with Ed on opening weekend. That same night, my family watched Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert colorfully disagree over the film on their show Sneak Previews, with my folks becoming intrigued by Roger Ebert’s favorable impression. The following weekend we saw it as a family. Mom & Dad thoroughly dug it, and Ed & I found all new things to like about it.
Before James Cameron gave us ALIENS and Spielberg brought THE COLOR PURPLE to the screen, the 80’s gave us a few stand-out moms in other genre films, most notably two from Spielberg. In the Spielberg directed sci-fi themed family classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Dee Wallace stars as a single mom, which made her quite unusual amongst movie moms and more similar to many of the moms who brought their kids to see E.T. Wallace’s Mary was no superhuman heroine, just a doting and diligent mom in an era when single mothers were often portrayed on film as pariahs. My Mom not only took me to E.T, she also took me a second time with a few friends who’d come over to play after school. One of those friends was from a single-mom home. He had never seen a single mom portrayed in this even handed manner by a movie, which led to as introspective a conversation about Moms as a group of 6th grade boys could manage during our ride home.
In the supernatural horror film POLTERGEIST, produced by Spielberg, JoBeth Williams created in her character Diane Freeling what would soon become an 80’s cliche: the post-hippy mom facing middle-age in suburbia. Diane was only that for the first half of the film; in the second half she may as well worn a cape. In the nerdy notorious summer of ’82, we had never seen a mom do anything as brave and cool as following a rope into a spectral dimension, with the hope of rescuing her supernaturally abducted daughter.
Had it not been for ALIENS, nerds might still regard Diane Freeling as the most bad@$$ mom in speculative fiction. Ellen Ripley becomes a surrogate mom to Newt, a young girl who had managed to survive an alien invasion of a terraforming station on the planet LV-426. Ripley had been brought to LV-426 with a detachment of Marines to help rescue terraforming colonists, but by the time the Marines arrive, young Newt is the sole survivor. Under these circumstances, a maternal element of Ripley never hinted at in the first ALIEN film emerges, making her such a dynamic hero that she became the highest ranking woman in AFI‘s list of 100 Heroes & Villains.
Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Ripley & Newt’s adventure is that their chief nemesis is a mother in her own right: a giant alien queen as ferociously protective of her eggs as Ripley is of Newt. Calling Ellen Ripley an ideal mom is a bit like calling the Cortez family from SPY KIDS and ideal family; no mom or dad or kids are ever going to face these situations, so it’s a little unfair to compare ones own family to these type of cinematic heroes. And yet, Ripley’s most heroic moment is how she protects Newt in that all-hope-is-lost moment that must come in all great adventures. Every parent will at some point need to explain death and all sorts of other terrible things to their children, and in those moments, moms & dads could do well to recall the resourcefulness and perseverance of Ellen Ripley.
A final movie mom who resonated deeply with me was Sarah Carraclough, played by Samantha Morton, in Charles Sturridge‘s deeply underrated 2005 adaptation of LASSIE. Most Americans know Lassie from a long running 1950’s & 60’s TV show wherein the noble collie belongs to a boy on an American farm. Few Americans under retirement age are aware that Lassie began as a 1940 novel by Eric Knight, which was set in Scotland, and previously filmed in 1943 under the title LASSIE COME HOME. The original cast featured a very young Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor, and the monster‘s bride herself Elsa Lanchester plays the same mother that Morton plays in this recent version. Lanchester’s credit in the 1943 film was credited merely Mrs. Carraclough, while her son Joe (McDowall) and husband Sam are graced with names. Sturridge’s LASSIE is notable for many reasons, including Morton’s mother receiving the name Sarah. Sarah and her family live in Yorkshire and make just enough of a living to scrape by. Another notable aspect of this film is that it remains set in the pre-WW2 era of the novel rather than being updated.
Sarah Carraclough may not be the mom Joe wants, but she is the mom he needs. Faced with the starvation during the oncoming winter, Sarah and Sam make the unhappy decision of accepting the offer of a wealthy Duke (the inimitable Peter O’Toole), who wants to buy Lassie as a gift for his granddaughter. Lassie of course rejects this arrangement and makes relentless efforts to return home to Joe. Sarah becomes the mom Joe wants when he is able to show her that Lassie is not only his best friend, but also part of their family. When Joe makes it clear that he loves Lassie as he would a sibling, Sarah revises her priorities, and does all that she can to help him. A parent cannot always be expected to differentiate between what their child really really wants this hour, week, or season … versus what they need. Children have needs that are so great that they become a part of their identity. A child who will not back down from a sport no matter how many times it knocks them on their ass is a child who doesn’t simply want to play, they need to be a part of that team. Joe Carraclough’s team is his family, of which Lassie is an inseparable member.
Sarah comes to understand that Lassie is as much part of Joe’s identity as his folks are, that he is as much Lassie’s friend as he is their son, and cannot fully be one without the other. We’ve seen Samantha Morton play a similar mom, coincidentally named Sarah, in Jim Sheridan‘s IN AMERICA. She was also this devoted and protective a wife as Debbie Curtis, the wife of Joy Division front man Ian Curtis in CONTROL. Morton can so seamlessly inhabit her characters that she makes a reversal like Sarah Carraclough’s expanded understanding of her son’s needs seem like the speed of life unfolding before your eyes.
I watched Sturridge’s LASSIE last Thanksgiving with my Mom and my brother Ed after dinner. My great affinity for dogs, be they biggest & most beautiful or scrawniest and mangiest, comes from my Mom. We always had a dog when I was growing up, and in recent years she’s had 2 or 3 dogs at all times. Neither Mom nor Ed would want this photo floating around the internet: watching LASSIE on the most family oriented of American holidays with my family while Ed’s pomeranian Rachel and Mom’s papillon Millie begged for pumpkin pie, and Mom’s American Eskimo Daisy reacted to every dog sound coming from the TV was the closest my family has come in years to a Norman Rockwell holiday image.
My Mom is not a huge movie fan but there are a handful of movies that resonate with her. She has shared a few with me, and I have shared as many with her as I can get her to watch.